‘Annie in Paris’: A night in Sacre Coeur

This column is about my study abroad experiences from Paris, France. I’m trying to shed light on incredible opportunities to encourage more students to study abroad, as numbers have dipped with the pandemic.

Kate, I say, breathless, ecstatic that she finally answered the phone on the fourth try in two minutes, you have nine minutes to get here, they’re gonna lock the gate — maps say you’re 12 minutes away. Can you run?

Grant and I are sitting in the lobby of a monastery, anxiously updating Kate’s location. Her tiny icon is making good time across my phone screen, but sprinting in this area is hard to sustain. We’re at a building on the top of the tallest hill in Paris. Wonderful for sunset views, not lovely for Kate at this very moment. We’re sitting on the floor of the lobby of the monastery of Sacré Coeur, one of the grandest churches in Paris. It’s our last week in France, our last Monday, and we’re spending the night here. Kate and I have been planning this for weeks, and now it’s here. Well, it will be, if Kate makes it in time.

The small nun at the desk smiles and sighs when I tell her our last member will arrive shortly. Grant goes outside to usher Kate in; I guard our charging phones. Do you speak any English? a sweet Irish accent says, voice raising in anxiousness as the elderly nun shakes her head. The speaker is wearing pink ballet flats and has thick brown ringlets, and I wonder if I’m capable of helping her. I play translator, a role I probably would not have been able to play two months ago. Maria, as I learn her name is, gushes her thanks as a winded Kate makes her way through the door.

The small, dried-apple-doll nun drops the heavy key into my palm and tells me Mass is starting. Irish Maria, in her pink ballet slippers, leads us up the stairs and across a covered pathway with stained glass windows. Maria may not speak French, but she is well-versed in religion, something I don’t know much about. She stayed her last summer, too, after a pilgrimage in the area. You should do it, she said. I did it with my girlfriends, and it was so fun. This is not typically what I would think to do as a trip with my friends. But then again, here I am at Mass at nine pm, sandwiched between my friends and my personal Saint Maria.

The reason we’re at this church, after all, is its history. It’s a beautiful, famed church of Paris; for its size, its elegance, its location. But the church is a symbol for more than just religion.

After the third French republic was formed in 1870, soldiers of the National Guard seized control of the city and formed what is now known as the Paris Commune. They ruled for two months. Reminiscent of the summer of 2020’s CHOP in Seattle, the Paris Commune had progressive, anti-religious policies, including separation of church and state, self-policing, abolition of child labor, and the remission of rent. The experiment ended with La semaine sanglante, The Bloody Week, where national forces executed between 10,000-15,000 Communards. On top of where the Paris Commune lived is now Sacré-Coeur. Officials say it was planned before the Commune existed; but it sure seems like a statement of power for the government to replace a place of rebellion with such an ornate display of French-ness.

The district is called Montmartre, which translates directly to Hill of Martyrs. According to lore, Saint Denis of Paris was beheaded at this site by the Romans, and this is where the name comes from— those whose lives ended during The Bloody Week may disagree.

Back inside, I watch Maria for cues; when my eyes are supposed to be open, when to sit and stand. When the priest raises her arm, a curtain in the elaborate altar rises, revealing some fancy religious things. The hand of God, Grant hisses as the curtain rises. When the communion wafer is offered, Kate gestures that Grant and I should stay behind, so we wait in the pews while she receives her blessing. The service ends. We rise, as others make their way out the front of the church. Our key grants us the authority to head to the back instead, over the velvet rope, and back through the stained glass passageway to our rooms in the monastery. We drop our backpacks and observe the room. Simple wooden dresser and table, clean white cots, a view of the lights of Paris behind the long white curtains. We decompress from our day, and just as my lids are starting to close, I shove my feet back into my shoes and cross the pathway once more. The thing we came for, after all, is the Night Adoration. A chance to be in Sacré-Coeur, almost all alone. That’s why they have the program. The church’s website boasts constant adoration for more than 135 years (including throughout the 1944 bombing and the Covid pandemic). Thus, the program allows them to verify thqt their chain of prayer will continue around the clock.

It’s spooky in there, haunting almost. The scent of incense and melting wax is thicker in the dark. The altar’s whiteness glows. Jesus looms large, painted overhead. We file into the pew and we just sit. I’m mesmerized by the massive Jesus. Maybe if I stare at him for long enough, something will happen.

Nothing does.

It’s crazy how long one can stay occupied on their own volition. Or maybe it’s not crazy at all, because I constantly have trouble staying on topic. But I realized I could sit there for hours, staring at the massive Jesus and now-closed curtains (the hand of God has gone to bed,) while during Mass an hour ago, I was itching for it to end.

After The Right Amount of Time has passed, we cross the threshold once more and we lay on our clean white cots and hang our jeans over the chair for tomorrow, and talk in the dark until I whisper in the direction of Kate’s bed, okay, i’m falling asleep now, and I do.

This is how we spend the night at Sacré-Coeur.


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